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The Baby and the Bathwater

The Baby and the Bathwater

It was only when I was at the end of my undistinguished computer sales career that the penny finally dropped: I was always pioneering new concepts. In the mid 1980s I spearheaded the office automation revolution. Then I became an advocate of Unix and Open Systems. When I moved into marketing I recognised that those IT sales people who made the most money usually sold the oldest products.

In retrospect it makes sense; long-established products have been proved in the marketplace. There are reference sites. Major problems have been ironed out. An investment in them poses little technological risk for a CIO. They aren't flash, but they do work.

Yet if many CIOs shy away from bleeding-edge technologies how do new technologies gain a foothold? Invariably the credit in Australia lies with the CIOs in the public sector, and especially those in the federal government.

These people, often faced with budget challenges, are prepared to prove new IT concepts.

For example, while the PC is now taken for granted, it was Canberra where office automation first took off. Similarly, as the battle for the server marketplace hotted up, it was CIOs in state governments who were prepared to silence the doubting Thomases arguing that Unix was not a commercial operating system. Other pioneering decisions by government CIOs saw imaging, workflow and parallel processing all get a chance to show their mettle.

The competitive pressures of the private sector often make executives more cautious. The fear of failure can be a greater distraction than the danger or expense of inertia. We all know the maxim you don't get fired for buying a certain brand. Unfortunately, neither do you get competitive advantage copying everyone else.

CIOs in the public sector are often under greater pressure to curtail costs. No politician likes to be associated with raising taxes so government CIOs must examine creative ways of delivering the same service for less money. They are more amenable to new ways of doing things.

However, the public sector's role as a catalyst for new technology may be coming to end. Throughout Australia politicians of all persuasions seem to have an unshakeable conviction that private enterprise does everything better than public service. While many in the industry would argue that this is not necessarily the case with IT, apparently few politicians are listening. As a result, the public sector outsourcing bandwagon seems, currently, unstoppable.

I believe this dogmatic approach to public sector IT outsourcing represents a major threat to the evolution of the local industry. I know that outsourcing can instil a commercial focus on IT service delivery, and may uplift the quality of the service, but I have grave doubts that it will ever save money.

Commercial services are all about minimising risk and maximising profit.

Neither approach encourages the outsourcing vendor to examine fresh ways of doing things.

IDC's research shows that public sector investment is a significant component of the Australian IT economy. If we are to distinguish ourselves in the global economy by being clever, clearly we need to foster an innovative and creative IT industry. Unfortunately, if outsourcing encourages inertia in the use of IT within the public sector, then I worry there is a serious danger we could be throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We could end up spending more money than we need and we could be shackling the excellent track record of public sector CIOs.

Peter Hind is the manager of User Programs, which includes InTEP, at IDC Australia

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